Media Experiment

In 1878 the photographer Edward Muybridge ran an experiment to settle a bet made by Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University.

The bet was this: when a horse was at full gallop was it ever completely airborne? No part of it touching the ground.

Muybridge set up 12 cameras along a race track on Stanford’s estate. As the horse galloped by it tripped wires attached to the cameras, triggering a sequence of photos as the horse went by.

Once developed, the sequence of images showed clearly that at the top of its stride all four legs are tucked beneath the horse.

Here’s the thing though, the experiment set off something much bigger than settling Stanford’s bet.

Let me explain.

Muybridge was one of a number of people experimenting with photography as a new technology for capturing and storing light in the 19th century.

Technologies like the camera and phonograph dramatically changed how humans represented reality.

Prior to photography and image could only be captured by a human who drew or painted. Think about it like this. Light made an impression, through the eyeball onto the optical nerve, where it was somehow turned into an image in the brain and then, converted, via the hand into a painting. Photography transferred this previously human process to a machine. Light passed through a lens and made an impression on another medium: a metal plate or film.

This enabled reality, in the form of light, to be stored in a medium without having to first pass through the living human body.

This is an incredible period in the relations between humans and their ‘reality-producing’ technologies.

A symbolic media system began to give way to a technical one.

By symbolic I mean that reality has to be transposed into a socially-constructed symbol – letters and words, musical notes, a handmade drawing.

The human hears a song. They cannot captured the sound directly. They instead need to discern the sounds with their ear and then write it onto paper using musical notation, which they could pass on to another human who, if they could read the symbolic code – in this case, the musical score – could play back the sound. Same goes for writing and reading. Someone talks to me, I discern the words and transpose them into letters on a page, which someone else could read back.

Technical media is different to this. With technical media like the photograph or the phonograph, one medium – light or sound – makes an impression on another – vinyl, wax, a metal plate, film.

Muybridge’s experiment is a critical part of this experimental social process of developing techniques for capturing and storing reality because he figures out a way to capture and store moving reality, something more akin to ‘living’ or ‘live’ images.

This had been a huge problem. Humans knew that when they looked at the world it was both colourful and full of movement, and yet devices like early cameras could only capture a still black and white image. The big question was whether humans could create devices that captured moving images that looked more like the images we saw in our own heads.

So, here’s Muybridge, looking at his twelve images of the horse and realising that not only had they settled the bet, they could be taken and passed via the eye in a steady flow to give the appearance of the horse actually moving.

Muybridge kept experimenting, and a couple of years later – in 1879 – created a device called, elegantly, a zoopraxiscope – which was critical in the creation of cinema.

The zoopraxiscope was a small wheel that had a sequence of images printed around the outer edge. When spun the images appeared, to the human eye, to move.

This device inspired Edison and Dickson’s kinetoscope, the first commercial form of moving image film.

Why tell this story now?

Well, it is one of those critical moments during the late 19th and early 20th century where humans developed ways of storing light and sound, and in a sense, storing impressions of reality outside the living body.

So, it alerts us to something important about media cultures and technologies.

Media are technocultural processes through which humans store, process, augment, and play with reality.

Muybridge was experimenting with techniques for representing reality in ways that went beyond storing it in the human mind and senses.

But, that’s not all. Listen to this.

If Muybridge’s was one of the great experiments for developing media devices that represented reality, he returns in 2017 with a cameo in one of the contemporary efforts to create forms of bio-technical media that experiment with lived experience, and life, itself.

In 2017, Harvard scientists encoded a moving image gif of Muybridge’s horse experiment into the DNA of a living cell. Where, as The New York Times explains,

it can be retrieved at will and multiplied indefinitely as the host divides and grows. The advance, reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature by researchers at Harvard Medical School, is the latest and perhaps most astonishing example of the genome’s potential as a vast storage device.

The scientists involved in the experiment think that it

may be possible one day to do something even stranger: to program bacteria to snuggle up to cells in the human body and to record what they are doing, in essence making a “movie” of each cell’s life. When something goes wrong, when a person gets ill, doctors might extract the bacteria and play back the record.

Or, outside the human body, we might create living bacteria or organisms that monitor the environment, or to record how the brain words.

One of the geneticists involved in the project at Harvard says, ‘What we’re trying to develop is a molecular recorder that can sit inside living cells and collect data over time’.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really get it. As in, I don’t really get the science – the bit where the image is transposed into information that can be stored in a living cell. But, to be really crude about it, it follows – I think – the logic of the digital. Once all information can be collapsed into 1s and 0s, then the contents of any medium can be stored in another medium. The contents of film can be stored in bacteria.

OK, but apart from its fantastic strangeness, this experiment is one of many taking place in the early 21st century that are transforming what we understand media to be.

If Muybridge’s was one of a series of 19th and 20th century experiments in capturing lived experience, then the Harvard scientists who put his film in the DNA of a living cell are part of early 21st century experiments with developing technologies that engineer and experiment with lived experience.

If, in the 19th and 20th century media represented reality, in the 21st century media experiment with reality.

Storing information in DNA is very experimental, but I’d argue we should see it as part of the development of media technologies in two important ways.

The first is conceptual: media are devices for capturing, storing and processing information.

The second is more industrial: the major platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, the techno-capitalist Elon Musk are all investing in these kinds of technologies.

This is Regina Duggan, a developer at Facebook talking at F8 in 2017.

Think about that, here’s a Facebook developer saying ‘let’s start with your brain’. Facebook are calling this a brain-machine interface project. What’s important here is not what Facebook can do now, but what they are trying to do. They are trying to reduce the ‘friction’ between you living biological body and the calculative capacities of their media technologies.

Platforms like Facebook and Google have been imagining stuff like this for years. In 2004, one of Google’s co-founders Larry Page told Wired magazine that ‘eventually you’ll have the implant where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer’.

When Elon Musk launched Neuralink he told the media that ‘over time I think we will see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence’.

Gizmodo reported in 2015 that

A group of chemists and engineers who work with nanotechnology published a paper this month in Nature Nanotechnology about an ultra-fine mesh that can merge into the brain to create what appears to be a seamless interface between machine and biological circuitry. Called "mesh electronics", the device is so thin and supple that it can be injected with a needle — they have already tested it on mice, who survived the implantation and are thriving. The researchers describe their device as "syringe-injectable electronics", and say it has a number of uses, including monitoring brain activity, delivering treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson's, and even enhancing brain capabilities.

Neural lace, wetware, brain-machine interfaces. Whatever we call it we can see the impulse here, if the effort in the 19th and 20th century was to store reality outside the living body, in the 21st century the impulse is to incorporate the living body into media technology itself. To engineer life itself, and to incorporate lived experience within the technical, calculative, logistical infrastructure of media platforms.

When Donna Haraway wrote her Cyborg Manifesto in the 1980s it, super importantly, contained a dialectic impulse. Horror at the effort of technologists to transform the human body and experience to fundamentally, and the incorporation of that effort within the political economy of global capitalism and empire. But, also, fascination with the way these visions opened up new ways of imagining what it might mean to be human. The human was no longer, if we ever were, just a living body. The human is entangled, integrated with its machines.

So, here we are. In the first part of the 21st century at least one of our tasks is to think about media platforms’ experiments with reality, lived experience and living bodies.

To think about what these experiments mean for living cultures and societies. To think about media platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder and what they do in our world we need to go back – at least to the early twentieth century – to think about the effort to create media as logistical technologies that collect, store and process data about the human experience.

Here’s John Durham-Peters on how we might think about media in this way from his essay 'Infrastructuralism'.

Media are infrastructures that regulate traffic between nature and culture. They play logistical roles in providing order and containing chaos. […] Once communication is understood not only as sending signals – which is certainly an essential function – but as altering existence, media cease to be only studios and stations, messages and channels, and become infrastructures, habitats, and forms of life. Media are not only important for scholars and citizens who care about news and entertainment, education and public opinion, art and ideology, but for everyone who breathes, stands on two feet, or navigates the ocean of memory. Media are our environments, our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are.

To continue along John Durham-Peters' line of thinking, here's an excerpt from his book The Marvellous Clouds, ancient media like ‘registers, indexes, census, calendars, catalogues have always been in the business of recording, transmitting, and processing culture […] or organising time, space and power’.

The symbolic understanding of media as audio-visual ‘entertainment machines’ which undergirds most accounts of advertising and society is something of an historical exception, ‘digital media return us to the norm of media as data-processing devices’.

We spent much of the twentieth century thinking about how media represent reality, we must also pay attention to the historical process through which media experiment with reality.